3 Questions: Diep Luu on MIT’s new Undergraduate Advising Center

One of many key priorities identified in the Task Force 2021 and Beyond report (TF2021) is the need to improve undergraduate advising. That conclusion isn’t groundbreaking; the committee working on the issue conceded that, over the past 30 years, multiple reports, memos, and pilots had already delved into it extensively. “We do not need further study of undergraduate advising at MIT,” the committee wrote. “We need a plan for implementing change.” The committee proposed a four-year, structured implementation plan and framework with built-in flexibility to evolve as needed to achieve meaningful change.

A central component of the plan is establishing a new advising center for undergraduates, staffed by professional advisors. These “Institute advisors” will guide students from admission to graduation, augmenting the work of department faculty advisors, to help all students identify and achieve their personal and academic goals while at MIT. With the appointment of the inaugural director of the MIT Undergraduate Advising Center (UAC), Diep (pronounced “Yip”) Luu, the Institute is well on its way to realizing the committee’s vision. Here, Luu describes the importance of undergraduate advising, his plans for the center, and the unique challenges and opportunities he sees at MIT.

"The creation of the [Undergraduate Advising Center] will contribute to realizing Chancellor Melissa Nobles’s vision of supporting and educating the “whole student” at MIT," says Diep Luu. "No matter where our students come from, they will be supported personally and academically during their entire undergraduate career at MIT."

Q: Undergraduate advising plays a significant role in a student’s path through college and beyond. Can you speak to this, based on your personal and professional experience?

A: I have been doing advising and student success work since my undergraduate years at the University of California at Davis, so I believe in the transformative power of holistic and developmental advising in higher education. I started as an astrophysics major in college, but I changed it to psychology with mathematics after serving as a peer advising counselor to other first-generation college and low-income students like me. I benefited greatly from the advising and mentoring that I received from faculty, staff, and my peers so much that I wanted to give back, so I decided to dedicate my professional career to helping all students thrive and succeed in college.

When I think of advising at the undergraduate level, I think about an advising support network that is comprised not only of faculty but also professional staff, students, and alumni. When students have access to this advising network, they can tap into a rich pool of diverse knowledge, perspectives, and experiences. It takes a village to support and educate students from matriculation through graduation. I am excited to launch the UAC at MIT to promote and foster these connections for all students while keeping in mind that each student is unique, and their needs are different, at different ages and stages, even if they share a similar background. This means that no one advising approach will work for all students, which requires listening and getting to know each student as an individual and then tailoring the advising support to address the student’s needs and concerns.

Q:  What is your vision for the Undergraduate Advising Center? What issues will it address?

A:  My vision for the UAC is that it will be a dynamic advising hub where students not only feel welcome and comfortable to stop by for help, but also a space where they can hang out and do their schoolwork. The center will collaborate with faculty and staff across OVC [the Office of the Vice Chancellor] and DSL [the Division of Student Life] to provide comprehensive and coordinated support for all undergraduate students throughout their time at the Institute. Ultimately, I envision that all undergraduate students at MIT will be well connected with the resources they need, when they need them, so that they can thrive and be their best and whole authentic selves.

Since I arrived at MIT in January of this year, I have met with students, faculty, staff, and administrators across campus to understand the advising landscape and needs at MIT. I also read the Task Force 2021 and Beyond reports and the first-generation/low-income working group report. My listening sessions and these reports helped me develop a strategic plan for the UAC, including the organizational reporting structure and hiring of new staff to realize this vision. We have successfully hired an administrative assistant for the center, and three associate dean searches are currently underway. In addition to the Office of the First Year, each associate dean in the UAC will lead a team of professional staff advisors with specific areas of focus that will address the advising needs and issues that emerged from my listening sessions and various reports. These areas of focus include expanding the support for first-generation and/or low-income students; expanding the early alert system (i.e., the 5th Week Flags) for all students; coordinating our decentralized tutoring services and faculty advisor orientation and development; and managing advising assessment, communications, and upper-level student programming. These areas of focus could change over time as the center evolves to respond to the changing needs of students. So, being flexible and nimble to pivot at any given time will be key to the success of the UAC.

Q:  MIT is known for its unique culture. Which aspects of that culture do you expect will work in your favor, and which ones will present challenges?

A:  Before coming to MIT, I either studied or worked at six other higher education institutions, both public and private, in four states: California, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. I can unequivocally say that there is no place like MIT, and I love how unique and quirky we are. MIT attracts the best and brightest students in the world, with many interests and talents both inside and outside the classroom. The faculty are world-class researchers and scholars, and we also have very talented and dedicated staff who are student-centered and invested in student success. I really enjoy going to work because I am surrounded by all these amazing people!

One aspect of the MIT culture that I know will work in our favor is MIT’s spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. For example, we are experimenting with creating an “advising hub and district” along the Infinite Corridor, where student-facing offices like the UAC, Student Financial Services, and Career Advising and Professional Development will be relocated to provide a more seamless, one-stop service for undergraduate students. In addition, it will promote a sense of community not only for students, but also for staff working hybrid schedules.

Lastly, advising at MIT is very decentralized, which is one of the reasons for creating the Undergraduate Advising Center in the first place. Decentralization also means a need for more coordination and communication across offices to minimize duplication of efforts and promote collaboration. Faculty will still be the primary advisors to undergraduate students, but the UAC team will supplement and complement faculty advising from students’ first year through their senior year. The creation of the UAC will contribute to realizing Chancellor Melissa Nobles’s vision of supporting and educating the “whole student” at MIT. No matter where our students come from, they will be supported personally and academically during their entire undergraduate career at MIT.

This story was originally published in MIT News on June 13, 2023. Photo courtesy of MIT.

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